ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Growing up in South Texas, Kiko Torres saw the Day of the Dead as an obscure holiday celebrated in southern Mexico. Few people dared to discuss it in his small but strong Catholic, Mexican-American community.
Still, Torres said he became fascinated by Day of the Dead folk art and ceremonies he saw during his father’s research trips to Mexico. Those images of dancing skeleton figurines and the event’s spiritual messages of honoring the dead, he said, were misunderstood in the United States.
“People here thought it was something to be scared of or evil,” said Torres.
But that’s changing. In the last decade or so, this traditional Latin American holiday with indigenous roots has spread throughout the U.S. along with migration from Mexico and other countries where it is observed. Not only are U.S.-born Latinos adopting the Day of the Dead, but various underground and artistic non-Latino groups have begun to mark the Nov. 1-2 holidays through colorful celebrations, parades, exhibits and even bike rides and mixed martial arts fights.
In Houston, artists hold a “Day of the Dead Rock Stars” where they pay homage to departed singers like Joey Ramone, Johnny Cash and even “El Marvin Gaye.” Community centers in Los Angeles build altars for rapper Tupac Shakur and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
“It’s everywhere now,” said Carlos Hernandez, 49, a Houston-based artist who launched the “Day of the Dead Rock Stars” event. “You can even get Dia de los Muertos stuff at Wal-Mart.”
The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, honors departed souls of loved ones who are welcomed back for a few intimate hours. At burial sites or intricately built altars, photos of loved ones are centered on skeleton figurines, bright decorations, candles, candy and other offerings such as the favorite foods of the departed.
The holiday is celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and parts of Ecuador.
Leading up to the day, bakers make sugar skulls and sweet “bread of the dead,” and artists create elaborate paper cut-out designs that can be hung on altars. Some families keep private night-long vigils at burial sites.
The growing Latin American population in the U.S. and the increased influence of Hispanic culture here in everything from food to TV programming are obviously major factors in the growth of Day of the Dead celebrations. But the holiday’s increased popularity may also coincide with evolving attitudes toward death, including a move away from private mourning to more public ways of honoring departed loved ones, whether through online tributes or sidewalk memorials.
For some in the U.S., the Day of the Dead remains personal as they use the occasion to remember close loved ones. But for others, it’s a chance to honor late celebrities or just an opportunity to dress up as a favorite Day of the Dead character.
But as Day of the Dead grows in presence, some fear that the spiritual aspects of the holiday are being lost. Already in Oaxaca, Mexico, where Day of the Dead is one of the most important holidays of the year, the area is annually overrun by U.S. and European tourists who crowd cemeteries to take photos of villagers praying at burial sites.
Oscar Lozoya, 57, an Albuquerque-based photographer who shoots fine art photographs of La Catrina, said some newcomers to the holiday are merely using it as an excuse to party and dress up in skeleton costumes. He hopes that they eventually do their research.
“I know what it means and its importance,” said Lozoya. “So I think the more people look beyond the art and learn about it, the more people will understand its real significance.”
Printed on Thursday, October 20, 2011 as: Day of the Dead gains popularity in the U.S.